His lonely childhood doubtless contributed to his paranoia which became increasingly evident as he grew older, and he spied upon everyone around him.
Abdül Hamit was nearly thirty-four years of age when he became sultan having been nominally confined in the Cage for the previous fifteen years. His lonely childhood doubtless contributed to his paranoia which became increasingly evident as he grew older, and he spied upon everyone around him. He and his older brother Murat had been given a better education than most of his predecessors, and both of them could speak French. This allowed Abdül Hamit to learn more about what was gong on in the outside world than was customary for Ottoman princes in times past.
As soon as he became sultan he decided to move from Dolmabah棠Palace to Yıldız Palace in the hills above the Istanbul district of Beşiktaş. Yıldız was not a palace in the conventional sense, rather it was an updated version of the Topkapı Palace – a series of small buildings, kiosks and pavilions set in woods and gardens. The sultan updated existing structures and created new ones so that he could live in safe seclusion in Yıldız Palace, which eventually contained a theatre, a library, an observatory, a photography laboratory, an embroidery workshop, a museum of stuffed animals, another museum for the sultan’s pictures and antiquities, a hospital and four clinics, a pharmacy, a carpentry workshop for the sultan’s own use, a sawmill for the furniture factory, kennels and a hospital for the sultan’s dogs, five stables for his horses, an aviary for his tropical birds and a zoo for his pet animals, which included a lion. He also built a nursery and schoolroom for his children.
By the time Abdül Hamit came to throne another crisis had arisen in the Balkans and the threat of war between the Turks and the Russians, led the Great Powers to convene in Istanbul on 4 November 1876. The conference was a complete failure and in January 1877 it disbanded. In March of that year he opened the first Ottoman parliament in a ceremony at Dolmabah棠Palace after which it met at the Palace of Justice next to Hagia Sophia. The parliament had little autonomy, for the sultan had made sure that all real power remained with him.
In April 1877 Czar Alexander II declared war on the Ottoman Empire and within nine months the Russian army had advanced to the suburbs of Istanbul. The Great Powers intervened and peace terms were settled at the Treaty of Berlin signed in July 1878. The Ottoman Empire lost an enormous amount of territory in the Balkans and north east Anatolia and paid a huge fine to the Czar. Meanwhile Abdül Hamit dissolved the Ottoman parliament which would not meet again for another thirty years.
Layard, the British Ambassador at this stage, was an especial favourite of the sultan and when, in 1880, he was recalled, Abdül Hamit gave him Bellini’s portrait of Mehmet the Conqueror which still hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in London.
In 1896 a group of Armenian terrorists seized the Ottoman bank in Galata and, a few days later, a bomb was thrown at Abdül Hamit as he went to Friday prayers. He survived unharmed but scores of people in his entourage were killed. This led to reprisals in which some ten thousand Armenians were killed in Istanbul. The Great Powers in Europe were outraged and ordered the killings be stopped – the sultan heeded their order. He celebrated his silver jubilee as sultan in 1901 by announcing plans for a railway from Damascus to Medina or Mecca to facilitate the haj pilgrimage.
Another attempt was made to assassinate Abdül Hamit in 1905 when a carriage filled with dynamite exploded outside the mosque where he was attending Friday prayers. Seventeen people died but the sultan, who was inside the mosque, escaped injury. The paranoiac sultan began to fear everyone, suspicious of his army and even of his own staff. His rule became even more despotic with censorship of books, newspapers and plays, as well as the imprisonment or exile of anyone suspected of liberal leanings.
The opposition to Abdül Hamit was led by the liberals known as the Young Turks among whom a party called the Committee of Union and Progress (CUP) came to the fore. Following two Congresses held in Paris in 1902 and 1907, the leaders of the CUP sent an ultimatum to Abdül Hamit in 1908 informing him that unless the constitution was restored within twenty-four hours the army in Macedonia would march on Istanbul.
Abdül Hamit restored the constitution and elections for the new Ottoman parliament were held in the autumn of 1908 with the CUP winning all but one of the 288 seats in the Chamber of Deputies. Muslim fundamentalists demonstrated against the new constitution and in April 1909 some soldiers joined students of the medreses (theological colleges) in storming the parliament building, killing two deputies and forcing the rest to flee in Istanbul. Abdül Hamit was once more in control of government.
But not for long. Within a week the army had marched in from Macedonia, taken control of Istanbul and demanded the resignation of the sultan on 27 April 1909. That evening Abdül Hamit and his entourage left by train for Salonika where he was exiled. The elder of his surviving brothers, Mehmet Reşat was officially raised to the throne.